New Plan, Old Tensions

Residents question a new development plan that would add 21 single-family homes to the Over-the-Rhine area

click to enlarge Ten-year-old Ishawn Walker (second from right) and other students on March 30 protest a plan to remove basketball courts next to Rothenberg School.
Ten-year-old Ishawn Walker (second from right) and other students on March 30 protest a plan to remove basketball courts next to Rothenberg School.

As Main Street crosses Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine, it goes from a bustling corridor filled with bars, restaurants and music venues to a less traveled and less developed streetscape. Rothenberg School is there, as are some affordable apartment buildings owned by Over the Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH). Near them are some vacant lots, a community garden and basketball courts. 

Those lots, and the basketball courts, have become the center of the most recent debate over what a changing OTR should look like. Cincinnati developer North Pointe Group has proposed an ambitious project for the land, which is currently owned by the city. The company wants to facilitate the development of 21 plots, proposing single-family homes costing between $400,000 to $600,000 each. 

But to build what they’re calling Rothenberg Row, North Pointe says it will have to tear down at least some of the six basketball hoops there. That has caused some immediate tension with residents in the neighborhood, who say the courts are a central place for children to play. 

Tied in to the debate about the courts is a wider, long-running discussion about how the neighborhood should adjust to the increasing interest in urban living from higher-income renters and homebuyers.

“My balcony overlooks the courts,” says Angela Merritt, who has lived in an apartment on East Clifton Avenue owned by OTRCH for more than a year. “Since I’ve been a resident there, I’ve seen a mixture of races getting together and playing on the courts. It’s sad that [the developers] didn’t come and talk to the people of the community to let us know that they’re developing something.” 

North Pointe, however, says it’s in the beginning stages of its efforts to reach out to the community. The group has yet to meet with representatives from OTRCH, Rothenberg Elementary or other residents around the area, but it has presented at two community council meetings. After controversy at those meetings, the company amended its original plan to tear down all six basketball hoops. Now, it says, it will leave two intact.

North Pointe first proposed its plan at a February Over-the-Rhine Community Council Board of Trustees meeting. The board voted to support the project, which will also include an existing building the developer will rehab and fill with eight single-bedroom, so-called workforce apartments at a more affordable price point.

The proposal then went for a vote of the full community council Feb. 23, where it was also approved, but not without controversy. 

In addition to complaints about the basketball courts, residents expressed concern over the cost of the housing, the fact they would be single-family homes — a rarity in dense Over-the-Rhine — and worries that the design of the buildings would be too “suburban.” Some residents of the neighborhood also pointed out that adequate notice wasn’t given that the proposal would be discussed at the meeting, arguing that the vote was therefore invalid. 

The next day, the community council sent a letter of support for the project to the city of Cincinnati stating that its board and general membership had both voted to approve the plan. North Pointe says it’s looking for funding from the city, and the letter could help its cause. The letter also noted that the second, full-council vote did not appear in the council’s minutes due to a “technicality.” 

Meanwhile, word spread quickly about the development.

North Pointe’s proposal has raised concern in a rapidly changing neighborhood where median incomes and average rents are rising fast. In 2014, OTR had the highest average rise in property values of any place in Hamilton County. 

For the past few years, that rise has mostly taken place south of Liberty Street. But now, with millions in development coming to the area around Findlay Market on the other side of OTR’s north end along with plans like North Pointe’s, the rest of the neighborhood could follow suit. That has stoked long-standing fears about gentrification. 

The endangered basketball courts have also touched a particularly sensitive nerve. Removal of a popular set of basketball courts at Washington Park was a flash point for some community activists and residents when the park underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in 2011. Residents there say the courts were a community hub. Others, including law enforcement, claimed they were a center for crime.

Twenty children and parents from the neighborhood around Rothenberg greeted attendees at the community council meeting March 30, dribbling basketballs and silently holding signs protesting the development. 

“A lot of people go to that basketball court,” said 10-year-old Ishawn Walker, who stood stone faced with a ball as residents filed into the city rec center on Republic Street where the meeting was held. Walker lives in the neighborhood and says he uses the courts regularly. “Even though they’re going to keep two, we like how many we have now.” 

The March meeting drew a larger crowd. The council’s general body, which is open to all residents of the neighborhood, was set to re-vote on council’s support of the North Pointe project after objections over the lack of notice for the previous vote. Representatives from the developer were also on hand to answer questions about their plan.

There were plenty.

Residents wanted to know how affordable the units of workforce housing would be. Despite affordable units being included in some new developments, affordable housing in the neighborhood has dwindled, as it has in the city as a whole.

“I guess we’d ask what the rent would be, and then from there you could determine who it is affordable to,” said OTRCH Executive Director Mary Burke Rivers, who was asked to weigh in on the question. “Because the workforce could vary from someone who makes $10 an hour to someone who makes $25.”

North Pointe’s Maureen McDermott said the developer isn’t sure of exact price points but has a good idea of the target range.“It’s a goal,” she said of the developer’s projected cost of $1.30 to $1.50 per square foot. “We’re looking at guidelines for what other people have used for workforce housing in the greater area.”

McDermott noted that the group would be rehabbing an abandoned building on the land and that each of the eight apartments would be about 630 square feet under the plan. That works out to around $800-$945 a month.

Residents also had questions about the design of the buildings and whether they would fit into the neighborhood’s historic character. McDermott assured those at the council meeting that all plans would still have to go through the Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board. 

Some residents were supportive of the plan, thanking North Pointe for coming to the meeting and expressing confidence something could be worked out. 

In the end, however, the council’s general body voted to withhold support for the project. Now the community council will issue another letter to the city explaining that the council’s general body doesn’t support the project after all. 

But the Over-the-Rhine Community Council isn’t the only body with a say in the matter. 

The land in question technically sits just across OTR’s border in Mount Auburn, at least by the city’s definition of the neighborhood. It also sits in the Over-the-Rhine Historic Overlay, however, meaning OTR has some say in the project’s design characteristics. 

The Mount Auburn Community Council approved the developer’s plans. The same concerns came up in that council’s meetings, says Mount Auburn Community Council Trustee Sandy Allen. They’ve issued a letter of support conditional on some adjustments to the plan based on residents’ concerns there.

But in OTR, those concerns have taken on a more urgent tenor among some residents who see new development of pricey single-family homes as a sign they’re being boxed out.

“I have lived and worked in this city for 30 years and I’m well invested in this community,” said OTR resident Jai Washington at the meeting. “But I find after 10 years of actively pursuing community engagement, I’m being pushed out. I cannot afford $900 a month, and I work two jobs.” ©

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